The damsel in distress has been a movie mainstay since Pauline first got tied to the tracks. But during the classic film noir cycle of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s women-in- peril began to cohere as a sub-genre with films such as ‘Gaslight’ 1944, ‘Sorry, Wrong Number’ 1948 , ‘Moss Rose’ 1947 , ‘Sleep, My Love’ 1948, ‘Lady in a Cage ’ 1964. The endangered woman had become a standard noir trope much like the femme fatale.
A movie that clearly upped the ante was ‘Wait Until Dark’ (1967) directed by Terence Young and starring Audrey Hepburn’ as a woman even more vulnerable by fact of being blind. ‘Wait Until Dark’ was a huge hit and launched a succession of 'blind woman noir' titles that continues unabated, among them: ‘See No Evil’ 1971 w/ Mia Farrow, ‘Blind Fear’ 1989 w/ Shelley Hack, ‘Blind Witness 1989 w/ Victoria Principal, ‘Jennifer Eight 1992 w/ Uma Thurman, ‘Blink’ 1994 w/ Madeline Stowe, ‘Nowhere in Sight’ 2001 w/ Helen Slater, and in 2013, ‘Blindsided’ AKA ‘Penthouse North’ w/ Michelle Monaghan.
However, pre-dating all of them was a gripping little British noir ‘Witness in the Dark’ about a young woman - blind - who is threatened by a killer.
Jane Pringle (Patricia Dainton) lives in the same apartment building as a widow who owns an expensive jewel broach. The neighborhood seems to know about the broach and a local criminal (Nigel Green) decides to steal it. However he can’t find where she’s hidden it and kills the old lady in the process of looking. As he leaves her building he bumps into Jane who senses his presence. She reaches out and touches the intruder thus ‘seeing’ him. The incident is detailed in the local paper with the story identifying Jane as the widow’s beneficiary. The killer sets about his plan to both steal the broach and kill Jane.
In outline ‘Witness in the Dark’ does sound like one of those tepid 1950's/ early '60's British crime thrillers that fail to actually thrill. But the devil here is in the details thanks to an ever-more-clever plot and the threatening presence of Nigel Green. The character actor was a familiar face to British movie-goers in the 1950’s and ‘60’s and later to international audiences with starring roles in films such as ‘The Ipcress File’, ‘The Wrecking Crew’ and ‘The Kremlin Letter’. Green might have been a leading man in the Stewart Granger mold had he not come across as being more sinister and threatening than romantic.
The film also stars Patricia Dainton, a forthright and appealing actress who starred in a host of second-line British productions over about a fifteen year period, most of them darkly noir-stained: ‘’Dancing with Crime’ 1947, ‘Tread Softly’ 1952, ‘Paul Temple Returns’ 1952, ‘Operation Diplomat’ 1953, ‘At the Stroke of Nine’ 1957, ‘No Road Back’ 1957, ‘The House on Marsh Road’ 1960, ‘The Third Alibi’ 1961. Dainton arguably was better than the majority of films she was in and in ‘Witness in the Dark’ gives an courageous performance as a woman clearly unencumbered by her disability. Dainton left acting behind in her early thirties after deciding to stay at home with family (she later became manager of W.H. Smith, one of London’s largest bookstores).
Also featured is Conrad Phillips as an investigating police inspector (Coates) who becomes fond of Jane and a cautious affection begins to develop between them. However even in Coates’ gentle gaze, we're able to get a suggestion of why female blindness has become such a common trope in noir. As Coates does, so are others able to look unrestrained at a blind woman who doesn’t look back or conceal. There’s no immediate point of rejection or resistence. If titillation to be found in that experience then the persistence of the blind-woman-in-peril phenomena in movies starts to makes some sense, albeit unfortunate.
‘Witness in the Dark’ is efficiently directed by Wolf Rilla (‘The Long Rope’ 1953, Roadhouse Girl’ 1953, Piccadilly Third Stop’ 1960, Cairo’1963) and in many ways is more of a movie than its 62-minute length might suggest. Very much worth watching.